As a 9 year old, the greatest day of every month was when the new issue of Nintendo Power appeared in the family mailbox. I would pour over the 100+ pages of screenshots and game previews the same way a medieval monk would a sacred religious text.
Nintendo Power was Nintendo of America’s internally-produced, official magazine. It was distributed in the US and Canada from 1988 until 2012. The monthly magazine was filled with maps, comics, cheat codes, previews and even high-scores submitted by players. If you were not so fortunate to have a subscription you can check out the first issue here to get a pretty good taste of what it was like
Now that I am an adult who is creating and marketing my own games, I can see that Nintendo Power was actually a marketing tool. The most wonderful thing about it though was that I (and millions of other kids of my generation) loved reading it. Nintendo Power was a genius package of marketing and there is so much that we indie game developers can learn from it.
In this week’s column I want to take a look at how Nintendo Power was presented so that it was fun to read, built up a community, and managed to promote the company’s games without sounding like a spammy advertisement.
If you are interested in reproducing Nintendo’s success you will quickly realize that it is WAY too costly to print and distribute a magazine. But thanks to the internet you can implement something similar though the use of an email mailing list. All of the following tips I discuss are designed specifically for your mailing list. Most of these tips do not work for Twitter and Facebook because social media just doesn't have the reach or permanence that an email does. For more information as to why, see my other post why email is such a powerful way to market your game.
By the end of this post you should have some ideas of things that you can send your own mailing list to promote your own games without crassly selling out to your audience.
The number one lesson you need to take away from Nintendo Power is that your primary goal in marketing is to entertain your target audience so that you can build a community of loyal fans. Your true fans are the ones who will buy every one of the games and evangelize them to their friends who don’t know about you yet. That word-of-mouth advertising is so very powerful and will help your game studio grow more organically.
Nintendo Power accomplished this by covering not just new games but also the many ways that their products were enjoyed by their fans.
For example, in any issue you could read about upcoming releases, games that had been out for several years, and about the fans and what they did when they were not playing Nintendo. The key was that Nintendo was NOT trying to sell sell sell you with every page in the magazine. Instead they were just documenting the ecosystem around their games and that naturally made their readers interested in buying their games. They were feeding an audience that wanted to read every single shred of news about Nintendo.
Typical table of contents with a wide variety of features
I see many studios provide a signup form on their website and underneath it says something along the lines of “We only email you when we release a game” or “Sign up and you will only hear from us when we have news.” That is like telling someone you just met, “Hey thanks for the phone number, I am only going to call you when I need help moving”
That is the wrong attitude to have for your mailing list.
Just as Nintendo Power was feeding its hungry fans who were clamoring for news, you should also assume that your fans are just as excited to see what you have in store for them. Instead of ignoring them, send your subscribers regular, generous, and entertaining helpings of information about your games in several different contexts. When you are emailing your list, remember that you are providing news to an audience that genuinely wants to hear from you. They thought you were so interesting that they trusted you with their precious email address. Don’t just alert people to go buy something. Entertain them.
If you look at any issue of Nintendo Power, the only ads were in the front and back pages of the magazine. With over 100 pages per issue, less than 1% of the total content was directly compelling you to buy something. Nintendo Power very easily could have been a typical product catalog that is just a list of games and prices similar to retailers like Toys R Us or a SEARS.
But, even though Nintendo Power was a marketing platform for the company, they knew nobody would read it if it was just showing advertisement after advertisement. Instead they gave away more than they asked.
For example, if you open the first issue of the magazine, you get the following:
Other issues gave away things like a tear out paper craft model of the Star Fox Arwing aircraft that you could put together. (Image Credit)
The reason I loved Nintendo Power as a kid was that I knew that in every issue I was going to get a magazine full of little presents. I came to expect great things from them and was always looking forward to more.
You need to practice a general mailing list rule-of-thumb called “give-give-give-ask.” This term means that for every one email you send asking your audience to buy your game, you should have already given them three emails containing something of value.
For example, give away your game’s soundtrack, or maps of the hard parts of the game or strategy guides for beating the bosses. Send them concept art that you created in the making of your game.
The reason you have to give away so much is that it increases the open rate of your emails. Your fans learn that when they see your email in their inbox they are going to get something cool. Your fan’s will also get a feeling that, with all that you have given them, they kind of owe it to you to at least check out your game.
The important thing is whatever you send them it has to be offered exclusively to the mailing list. You can’t just turn around and give this away on Twitter or on your personal website. You do this because there has to be an incentive for them to join and stay subscribed to your mailing list.
In the 1980s most NES games cost about $70 in today’s currency. They were expensive. But in one legendary promotion, Nintendo sent a free copy of the RPG Dragon Warrior if you purchased a 1-year subscription to Nintendo Power. It was an insane deal.
Nintendo advertised this deal by including the following poster with every new game. (Image Credit)
Additionally, if you renewed your subscription every year, they would give you Player's Guides for other games. These guides were essentially full walkthroughs that showed you every secret for the game.
These incentives drove millions of fans to subscribe.
Besides the giveaways, Nintendo was never shy about reminding you that Nintendo Power existed. Every Nintendo game you bought always included a small card you could fill out to subscribe. The cards were very clear that when you join you would get free stuff like cheat codes.
This card even gives you a free tip before asking you to subscribe.
Nintendo even advertised for its magazine within games. This famous blurb from Mike Tyson’s Punch-out!! advertised the Nintendo Fun Club (the distant-ancestor that later became Nintendo Power)
There is a two prong solution that Nintendo used to get people to join:
Use both tactics to grow your mailing list subscribers. Put a signup form for you mailing list within every game of yours (don’t just link off to a website because every extra step you add means fewer subscribers). Also patch your old games to include this signup form.
From Twitter, pin a tweet reminding fans to join your mailing list to get free stuff and information. Add the signup form to your website. At conferences have a signup form (or better yet use the Mail Chimp iPad app to allow them to type in their name)
But the most important thing you can do is give potential subscribers something of immediate value when they sign up for the mailing list. This is called a lead magnet because it gives just enough incentive to attract those casual fence-sitting fans to join.
This lead magnet should be a small digital give away. For example, give a free game or a PDF of a comic that gives the back story of one of your games. Whatever it is, you need to find something that is attractive to the audience you are trying to build.
In the NES era, there weren't that many games. As a kid you had to get as much life as you could out of them by replaying them until you found every secret. Nintendo Power was so great because it wasn't just filled with information about upcoming games, it gave equal time to games that were several years old. In practice, they basically made your old games more valuable to you.
For instance, the very first issue of Nintendo Power told you how to unlock the Master Quest in the first Legend of Zelda. At the time of publication of that issue, the Legend of Zelda was over a year old. This tip alone essentially gave me an entirely new game, for free. I spent the next several months replaying an old favorite.
Similarly, a year after it originally released, Nintendo published the “JUSTIN BAILEY” cheat code for Metroid which allowed you to start the game with a huge advantage. Before that code I had never finished Metroid 1 because it was way too hard. However, with this code I was finally able to. If I wasn't a subscriber, I would have never been able to extract this much value out of the game.
Your mailing list shouldn't just be about your upcoming and newly released games. Always mention your back catalog. Don’t forget that the majority of the people on your list have probably only played one of your games. To be a sustainable indie ensure that your games have “a long tail” and are purchased well past their initial launch.
Here are some examples of things you can email your list about to boost your back catalog
Whenever I went over to a friend’s house, I would always bring my copies of Nintendo Power. The extra details and secrets inside the magazine’s pages always allowed me to show off. As a kid, it made me feel like I had the insider scoop that those sad non-subscriber kids didn’t.
Nintendo knew this and they played it up. For example, every issue had a section called “Classified Information.” It was like you were getting contacted by an informant or really did have an uncle that worked for Nintendo. In this section you got a game-by-game breakdown of cheat codes or secret modes that weren't available any other way.
Although the internet can instantly spread any bit of information for free, you can counteract that by ensuring your mailing list is always the source of hints and news about your games.
For example if you release a strategy game, you can use your mailing list to distribute a FAQ detailing the best opening moves or unit types. Or, publish a PDF with the DPS of every unit. Yes, fans will repost that content on forums but they will always preface it with “this was just released on the mailing list...” They just advertised your mailing list for you and anyone who is a true fan will subscribe so they can get the latest information first.
The most powerful marketing you can do is one that allows players to play your game in their head before it releases. You want them to know the rules, understand the systems, and then just let that ferment in the months before the game comes out. This mental practice is why let’s plays are so powerful. Viewers learn the rules and mentally pre-play then decide if they want to pay for the real thing.
Before video let’s plays existed, Nintendo provided very deep preliminary info their games. For example here is just one page (of the 14 total!) of a walkthrough of Legend Of Zelda a link to the past.
The walkthrough introduces you to the important items. It tells you how they work and what the benefits are. Because I knew the basics from reading the magazine, my initial play with the game was much smoother than if I was going in blind. I wasn't starting at ground zero.
Even if your game is a month or so away from release, provide a bit of a walkthrough of the beginning of your game. Give the map of the first world so that true fans can anticipate how the game will work. Yes you should mark this email with spoiler tags but you don’t have to give away major plot points. Just give them the basic mechanics.
One of the fondest memories I have of Nintendo Power was the serialized Mario and Zelda comics. The art was world class and drawn by famous Manga artists Kentaro Takekuma and Shotaro Ishinomori.
The comics were split into 12 parts and each chapter ran in a different monthly issue. The first comic ran just after A Link to The Past was released. The story in the comic wasn’t exactly the same that was in the game, but it provided a bit of world building that extended beyond the game.
You might not have the resources to hire a famous Manga artist to produce a 12 part series that you give away for free, however you can get your game’s artist to draw up some simple panels. If you don’t have an artist who can do that, a simple text-only short story can work too.
There are several reasons why you want to provide these serialized stories to your mailing list:
The first is that it satisfies the give-give-give-ask rule. You are providing free content to your subscribers.
Second, if you serialize your story like the Nintendo Power did, and each emailed-chapter ends on a cliffhanger, you are ensuring that people will open your next message (boosting open rates.) It also makes people less likely to unsubscribe if they want to see how the story unfolds.
Next, you are filling out the story of your games. This will make those who already bought the game have a better understanding of the story and lore. You might also be able to embellish on details that you had to cut from the game because of time or budget constraints
Finally, it serves as a way to sell your back catalog of games. Even if one of your subscribers did not purchase the game your comic is about, each time you send out another chapter, there is a chance they will be intrigued and decide that it is finally time to go buy the game.
Every regular Nintendo Power reader knew who Howard Phillips was. In the 80s he was probably the most famous mid-level-marking-manager among 8 to 12 year olds. For those of you who didn't read Nintendo Power, Howard worked at Nintendo and was the creative responsible for the magazine. He was always pictured (in both photos and in illustrations) as a straight-laced, bow-tie-wearing helpful game guru. He brought a personality to the magazine and made if feel like there were actual humans behind it.
Every issue had a little comic where he would obliquely give hints for the latest game.
Don’t write your emails in some sort of generic and anonymous voice of the “studio.” Introduce yourself at the start of every email. Include a cool headshot drawn by one of your artists that play up any quirks or affectations.
Show personality in your writing. Tell back stories about yourself that don’t have to do with your games. Make it so each person in your studio takes a crack at writing one of the emails in your newsletter. Your goal is to humanize your studio so fans learn who you are.
Nintendo Power always made their offices seem like the real-life equivalent of the Wonka Chocolate Factory. There were always profiles of the Power Line which was a hotline of game counselors who would give you tips if you got stuck playing a game.
In one of the issues they wrote a two page spread on the Nintendo play testing facility.
Very few people know how video games are actually made. But they are interested. Send your mailing list a description of your design process. Show the gory details of bad sketches, post-it notes, and early gray boxes. Show the folks in your studio working together (hopefully your readers will recognize them because you followed the step above for humanizing your studio).
Nintendo did a great job of making it feel like if you were subscribed to Nintendo Power, you were part of an exclusive club. Every issue included a little detachable ballot so you could vote on which game you liked the most and the results would be posted in the subsequent issue.
They also published letters from fans about a range of topics. In one issue, they featured a story from a veteran of the first Iraq War who found that his Game Boy still worked despite the fact that it was hit with a bomb blast.
There were also little contests featuring reader submissions and always a table of high scores.
In fact, some of today’s most famous artists and designers were serendipitously featured in Nintendo Power before they were big. Artist J Scott Campbell won Nintendo’s “Design a game” competition when he was just 15 years old.
Game designer Cliff Bleszinski was also featured in Nintendo Power Issue #1 with his high score in Super Mario Bros.
With a popular enough game you are bound to get some fan art. Be sure to send it to the rest of your mailing list and credit the creators. You can even organize a fan art contest and highlight the winners.
If your game has online leader boards, be sure to point to anyone who is consistently in the top. If they are on your list, consider interviewing them to find out tips that you can spread to the rest of your list.
If you attend any fan conventions, talk about any meet ups you had with fans of your games. Be sure to include images. Show cosplay of your game’s characters.
Your goal is to show that your community of players exists outside the virtual world. Make people feel like there are others just like them in your community and that it is a welcoming place.
Nintendo Power was ground zero for fans of that system and Nintendo did an amazing job nurturing that community.
You can leverage a lot of what Nintendo did and update the techniques for the internet age by building a similarly vibrant fan base through a mailing list. You need to treat the folks who subscribe as your true fans. Social media platforms such Twitter and Facebook are more ephemeral and you cannot guarantee that your followers will hear your message. However, because email stays in subscriber’s inboxes until they open or delete it, there is a much higher chance that they will get what you send them.
Good luck building your community. Maybe in 20 years people will be nostalgic for your emails.
If you want to learn more about Nintendo Power Here are some Additional Resources
If you still need help with ideas for what to send to your list, I wrote a book with even more details than this essay and an easy to read collection of 87 emails you should send out. Download it for free here.
If you are interested in my other articles about how to use your email list try